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We are all mixed-up about nutrition these days.
Take a look at any headline of a popular health and wellness magazine, and they’ll tell you a version of the common “eat less, move more” with tips on cutting calories and working out more. It’s led many women (and men) into a disordered eating pattern or a continuous diet cycle.
While yes, many Americans likely do eat more than their body needs on a regular basis for a number of different reasons:
- The Standard American Diet is high in processed foods with refined carbohydrates and sugars that are high in energy (calories) but low in nutrients. It’s easy to overeat on these foods.
- Most people aren’t ‘intuitive eaters‘ and are not aware of their hunger and fullness cues, or do not actively listen to them.
Yet, a lot of people who are actually trying to build health end up undereating. Yes, you CAN undereat too, and there are side effects. Even if you’re eating ‘real food,’ you may be undereating.
Undereating can be stressful on the body and lead to symptoms of fatigue, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, slow digestion, feeling cold all the time, a weak immune system, obsessive thoughts, food cravings, and more.
So, why do people undereat?
Although there is more awareness on why it’s not simply calories that matter, a lot of people count their calories as a way to lose weight or get healthier. The trap that people fall into is trying to lose weight really fast by eating a very minimal amount of calories. Cutting your calories down to 1500, 1200, or even less is stressful on the body!
While you often will see 1200-calorie meal plans in magazines, I have yet to find someone who feels satisfied and is able to maintain it in a sustainable, healthy manner while eating a very low-calorie plan. That’s because our metabolism requires typically 1200 calories (or more!) a day to keep your vital organs alive.
Our basal metabolic rate (BMR) is what keeps our heart pumping, lungs breathing, and body alive and thriving. It’s the energy (calories) your body burns if you were to lay in bed all day, doing absolutely nothing. Add on top of that your daily activities and any exercise or movement, and you need to eat a lot more energy!
I had the chance to do a metabolic study during my dietetic internship where I had my BMR measured in a fancy machine that measured my breathing over 30 minutes. My results showed that my BMR is around 1450 calories – this means at rest, my body needs 1450 calories to fuel my body’s vital activities. I don’t need to count calories anymore because I trust my body’s signals, and I know if I ate a low-calorie meal plan, I would feel fatigued and probably a little crazy around food.
If you have been restricting your calories, it can be helpful to estimate what your needs are and track (this is a nutrient-based tracker) for 3 days or so to see how much you may be undereating by. It can also give you an idea of what a normal amount of food for your body may be. After tracking for a few days, move into developing intuitive eating skills to start to trust your own unique body. Do remember that intuitive eating works because your body’s need for energy is always changing – so you may eat more (and feel hungrier) or less on different days – rather than an exact amount of calories each day.
The truth is your body is capable of “counting” all on its own. Your body is always seeking balance (homeostasis), and by listening to its signals for hunger, fullness, or even physical cravings, it can tell you what it needs. I don’t weigh myself, but I do know by eating intuitively, my body is staying within a healthy weight range for me. It did take time to develop a healthy relationship with food, but I also don’t feel out of control around food without counting or ‘keeping myself on track.’
A lot of people restrict their food intake or count calories as a way to lose weight. Yet, by cutting calories below your basal metabolic rate, your metabolism will actually decrease to conserve energy. Many people also report all the side effects of dieting, especially cravings for high-fat or high-sugar foods. Often, this is a biological response to deprivation because rich and sweet foods are quick energy for the body!
When you start eating ‘normally’ again after the calorie restriction or diet, you may gain more weight than before the diet because your metabolism has dropped. Luckily, you can’t “break” your metabolism because the human body is extremely resilient and capable of healing!
Unfortunately, the diet industry ends up encouraging this stressful yo-yo dieting pattern because many calorie-counting apps offer the option of “easily” losing up to 2 pounds a week. By eating a very low-calorie diet, people are often forced to leave out otherwise nourishing foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, or olive oil because they are higher in energy. As a result, many people may lose weight, but it’s not necessarily healthy for their mental or physical health.
So, what can you do if you’re undereating?
- Switch your focus to building healthy habits rather than exclusive weight loss.
- Delete the calorie counting apps off your phone, and gradually re-connect back to your body’s signals for hunger and fullness. This is called intuitive eating.
- If you’re worried about weight gain from eating more again, gradually increase your food intake to support your metabolism. If you have a disordered eating pattern (or are struggling with an eating disorder), work with a dietitian who has experience with eating disorders to support you during this process.
- Define what healthy feels like for you. Personally for me, health is holistic, including my physical health along with my mental, spiritual, social, and emotional well-being. This means choosing nourishing foods that work for my body, so I feel energized and vibrant while also allowing myself to enjoy food as pleasure and not deprive myself mentally or physically.
- Start to build trust with your body through intuitive eating and health at every size principles. Your body has a set-point weight range that is healthiest for you, and yo-yo dieting may increase that weight range. By choosing to NOT diet or undereat, you’re supporting your body’s health and metabolism. My new ebook – Hips, Hunger and the Pursuit of Healing – also offers exercises and information on intuitive eating and body image that can help you build trust with your body.
- Notice how your body and mind feels when it’s nourished and is getting enough energy! If you’re undereating, you may not have the energy to do the things you love in life or be able to enjoy social situations, especially around food.